Saturday, February 20, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing

A 2007 study by Joel Mason, MD, amply illustrates that creating your own "supplement cocktail" based upon supermarket supplements and an incomplete understanding of nutrition science can have unexpected or even dangerous consequences.

Folic Acid (also known by Folate and Vitamin B9) is an important nutrient that assists the body to produce healthy new cells, prevent some forms of anemia, reduce birth defects by helping prevent or minimize DNA changes and possibly reduces the incidence of some forms of cancer. By any measure it is an important component of a healthy, complete diet, especially for children and pregnant women. Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans, peas and nuts and some cereals and grains. Its also gotten a lot of (semi-informed) press so health conscious people are aware of it and frequently take steps to supplement their diet with it.

The problem with this is that, according to the Mason study cited above, consuming large amounts of folic acid may actually increase your risk of developing certain cancers, colorectal and prostate especially. The US Food and Drug Administration has established a tolerable upper limit of 1,000 mcg per day for folic acid. As supplement makers rushed to include folic acid in their products when it became "popular" it became very easy to exceed the recommended limit without knowing it. For example, your multivitamin may contain 400 mcg. If you add a B-complex supplement you could get another 400 mcg from that. If you eat a healthy diet you will probably be getting 200 - 800 mcg of folic acid anyway. Add a folic acid supplement and you could be well over the recommended limit.

The point of this is not to discourage you from using supplementation or folic acid. Just be aware that nutrition is a complex science, that nutrients have to be present is specific amounts and combinations to be optimally effective, that too much of something really can hurt you (ever notice how many bottles of vitamin pills carry warning labels?), and that many (not all) supplement makers follow the same trends and fads that you do. If you are going to use supplements, and most reputable health care professionals recommend that you do, make sure that your supplier actually understands the nutrition behind the products and ensure that your supplementation program is synergystic and comprehensive. "Mix and Match" might well do you more harm than good.

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